Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Saint Camber, Chapters 17-18

Welcome to the weekly reread of Saint Camber! Last time, Camber was secretly ordained before being appointed bishop in an appropriately elaborate ceremony.

This week Camber and Joram remind us, all too briefly, of another daring duo, Morgan and Duncan, and Guaire drops a bombshell that we’ve all seen coming.

 

Saint Camber: Chapters 18-19

Here’s What Happens: As Chapter 18 begins, we finally shift out of synopsis to action. Camber/Cullen is playing hooky, watching a man shoe a horse, when Joram (with a brief author-pause to adore his cool blond Morganesque beauty) arrives with a summons from Cinhil. It’s very official and very political: Cullen has been appointed royal chancellor.

Camber is gobsmacked, but being Camber, he keeps himself under control and immediately starts organizing his departure. Then he and Joram adjourn to this trilogy’s answer to Morgan’s tower: Queen Sinead’s Watch, which has alabaster windows instead of Morgan’s green glass.

Once they’ve climbed up there and got their breath back, Camber gives Joram a historical lecture about Queen Sinead, who was so devoted to her Haldane king that when he came back dead from a battle, she threw herself to her death. Hence the addition of the windows. Safety, you know.

The conversation shifts to a discussion of Camber’s new job. It’s partly Anscom’s doing, to neutralize some of the king’s new, anti-Deryni adherents. The Michaelines are in the thick of it as usual, and not in a good way.

Cinhil isn’t doing so well, Joram says when Camber asks. He’s mellower but moody, and being pressured to sire another, unflawed heir. Too bad about Megan, Camber says, but we all make sacrifices.

Meanwhile, back at Caerrorie, Joram and company got the body moved. The pilgrims are still a problem. Camber doesn’t like the vibe: it’s seriously mixed, between Deryni “savior” and anti-Deryni hate. Camber runs off on a lecture about “backlash,” with Joram as questioning student.

Time to found the Camberian Council, yep. Camber has already had thoughts as to who should be on it. Joram, always the devil’s advocate, isn’t sure it’s a great idea.

They leave this for the time being to talk about some new documents Camber has found, with another lecture, this time on Deryni history. Turns out the Gabrilites have one house, and that’s at St. Neot’s (which will figure largely in the Morgan/Kelson years). Now they’re headed off to look at some ruins, because Camber’s delegated all the work of packing and getting ready, so let’s have an Adventure! He’s figured out how to make a new (old but forgotten) kind of Portal, and it’s keyed specifically to him. Joram is suitably amazed.

They use it to zap off to what’s left of an ancient Deryni school, which Camber’s workmen discovered while excavating drains. It’s blocked off, which is why they have to beam in. Deep inside is a very secret Latin-carved door, which leads to a huge domed temple with another Latin inscription that isn’t the usual one for an altar. Also, the place has a weird vibe.

It looks as if it was deliberately destroyed, but the altar is still consecrated. Camber is having a wonderful time stringing Joram out and teasing him with guesses about what the place is.

Then he shows Joram a super-cool thing: the Wards Major that apparently every Deryni carries around aren’t just wards. The way the altar is set up, they can do other things, too. Camber hasn’t quite gone all the way toward figuring it out, but now Joram is here, he tries an experiment. What he gets is the discovery that the altar does something when combined with the cubes, but he has no clear idea what. Joram thinks “giant Ward Major matrix,” but Camber isn’t so sure.

What it adds up to is that the altar is a massive power source, but he’s really wary about messing around with it. This surprises Joram. Joram isn’t used to seeing Camber with an attack of the cautions.

They zap back to the tower, shocking Guaire just about out of his skin. Camber gets all airy and casual about what he and Joram were doing. Guaire doesn’t seem fazed. He has news: they can leave in the morning after all, dinner’s ready, and all’s well.

Once Guaire goes off to execute his next set of orders, Camber and Joram pause for a quick “Whew, that was close” and a bit more news and family gossip. Camber wants Evaine to help him with some translations. Joram, back to being Caution Guy, wonders if they dare trust her after the last time she got above herself in a spell—shapechanging into the young monk, which is not supposed to have been possible.

Camber, back to being Camber, doesn’t see any problem. It will be fine. She’ll be fine. They’ll all be fine. What can possibly go wrong?

Joram’s good with that, then. He and Rhys can help, even. He suggests he be assigned to “Cullen’s” staff. Joram wants to be in the middle of things, and this will be where it’s at.

Camber is all verklempt. He had no idea Joram wanted to be with him. He didn’t even dare ask.

There is father-son bonding and priest-priest bonding. And the chapter ends.

Chapter 19 jumps across a couple of days and a lot of rain (it’s always rainy in Gwynedd) to Valoret, where the Bishop of Grecotha encounters a large welcoming committee. Lots of prelates, and the “damp but exuberant” Cinhil.

Cinhil has big plans. Big, big plans. He expounds on them for days. Then there is a ceremony, with bling and ritual, that invests Camber as Chancellor.

Others are also invested in the new royal council. Jebediah is the new military commander and Earl Marshal. New lords are invested—nearly all human, balancing the clerics, who are nearly all Deryni. Camber is all right with this, but wonders how long the balance will last.

We’re now in history mode again, with Cinhil organizing the council and putting it to work. Lots and lots and lots and lots, and lots, of politics. There’s a human lord giving trouble: Sighere, who was Cinhil’s ally against Imre and has now gone rogue and taken Kheldour and Eastmarch. It’s humans versus Deryni, and it’s getting ugly.

Then there’s Deryni Torenth, which is looking like the start of a problem. For one thing, Ariella’s offspring is there.

And so on and on and blah-di-blah. Time for an arms race, and a military buildup. Jebediah’s all into the cavalry, breeding destriers.

Meanwhile Camber gets Joram on his staff and moved in next to his own rooms, and the queen helps get Evaine into the palace as one of her ladies, which brings Rhys along as well.

“Mouselike” little Megan is actually excited about having her bestest friend with her. Even Cinhil notices, which is major. So Evaine is settled in and starts translating Daddy’s secret scrolls in her spare time.

She actually doesn’t argue about translating only, no experimenting. Because even a lowly and flighty woman can see that this stuff is dangerous.

And so on and on in synopsis mode, flipping calendar pages to February. Camber is still in Valoret, though planning a month’s stay in Grecotha, and Joram is going over the day’s schedule. This includes a stag hunt with a baron named Murdoch, whom Joram does not like. He’s human, and he’s a ferocious social climber.

Camber doesn’t like him, either, and knows he ought to warn Cinhil about the man. Then he notices that Guaire, doing body-servant duties, is out of sorts. It takes some doing, and a fair bit of stage business, to extract the cause.

Guaire, after much prompting and coaxing, and with much stammering, wants Camber to talk to Anscom about something to do with his burgeoning vocation. He’s almost ready to take holy orders.

Camber is all supportive but wants to know what Guaire is really up to. He allows as how he wants to join a new order, one that’s just starting up. It’s dedicated to a new saint, whom they want to push through to canonization. There are lots of miracles, Guaire says. It’s a sure thing.

Finally, inch by inch and dribble by dribble, though by then we (and Camber) know who the would-be saint is, Guaire comes out with it. It’s Camber, of course.

And I’m Thinking: The first chapter in the pair is a welcome echo of the freshness that I remember in the early Morgan books. Camber and Joram are male-bonding a la Duncan and Morgan, and Joram is even looking like Morgan.

Whom I am seeing as Ladyhawke-era Rutger Hauer, by this point—though these books predate the film by some years. It’s perfect. Black clothes and all.

The echoes of Morgan are pretty specific, and pretty obvious. Lofty towers, hidden Portals, magical ruins, Camber even ducking his admin duties, which is completely out of character for him and totally in character for Morgan. And St. Neot’s, which is a big loud shout-out to a notorious Morgan-and-Duncan adventure.

Unfortunately, having given us that too-brief taste of her old storytelling style, Kurtz about-faces in the next chapter with long, long, long, dry, dull synopsis of events that I wish her editor had persuaded her to write out as a scene or two or three. They wouldn’t have taken up any more space and they would read much better.

Guaire’s bombshell at the end is kind of flat. We’ve had so much hinting and foreshadowing (beginning with the book’s title and going on and on from there) that by the time we get to it we’ve run out of anticipation. I was way more interested in the ancient history of Deryni and the secret altar. We know the general outline of the Camber story from the Morgan trilogy. How about something new that we haven’t seen before?

And then there’s the female element, which is as oyful as ever. Poor diminished little Megan running around like a small fluffy dog, all excited about Evaine, and Evaine thoroughly and firmly throttled down to her proper female role of servant and secretary. Even the legendary Queen Sinead exists solely to die for her husband.

Nope, didn’t feel these chapters much, except to recall what made the first two Morgan books so compulsively readable: the immediacy of the telling, the speed of the action, and the vividness of the characters. We get a glimpse of all that and then we’re pulled back into the long drone of the pseudohistorical narrative.

It’s trying too hard to be Serious. It’s ever so much better when it’s just letting itself be an adventure story with happy sexy heroes and deeds of derring-do. There’s no derring here, and precious little do.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, a medieval fantasy that owed a great deal to Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books, appeared in 1985. Her new short novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, has just been published by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed spirit dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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